The horse racing idol app breathes new life into the Japanese mobile game market

Uma Musume game advertisement in Tokyo's Akihabara electronic district
PHOTO FILES; A promotional view for the mobile game “Uma Musume” in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district, Japan August 26, 2021. Photo taken August 26, 2021. REUTERS / Sam Nussey

December 13, 2021

By Sam Nussey

TOKYO (Reuters) – When an aging racehorse, Makahiki, broke a record by winning his first race in five years in Kyoto in early October, Japanese social media was flooded with comments from a group that did not Racing enthusiasts: gamers.

The online boom is the latest sign of expanding boundaries for “Uma Musume Pretty Derby,” the Japanese mobile game industry’s first hit in a decade. The game has found a niche by serving as a bridge between historically distinct subcultures of horse racing and female pop stars known as “idols”.

Players train and race female characters dressed in school and military-inspired costumes that add ears and ponytails. The race winner performs a pop concert.

The results are clearly spectacular: since its release in February, the game has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars for its creator, Cygames, and the developer’s parent company, online advertising. CyberAgent, making it one of the highest-grossing mobile games in the world despite its release only in Japan. Its user base has at times rivaled the likes of Tencent’s “Honour of Kings”.

“I was thinking of buying a car but realized I don’t really need one and since I have savings, why not put all my energy into ‘Uma Musume’?” Daiki Minakawa, 25, a software engineer software, who spent more than 2 million yen ($18,000) in the game, “I can’t buy a car anymore but I don’t have any regrets.”

The breakout success of “Uma Musume” – which means “horse-herding girls” – was a boost for Japanese developers, whose mobile market share has been eroded by a flurry of titles. China is becoming more and more polished.

The “gacha,” a mechanical tool common in Japanese titles, in which real-world money is used to win special items and character boosts, is what makes the game become so profitable.

Although “Uma Musume” is free, many users use gacha – similar to “loot boxes” in Western games – to collect characters and advance. Yohei Tatsumi, 36 years old, a labor and social security lawyer, plays during times of boredom and spends 10,000 yen-20,000 yen monthly on the title. “I have no plans to stop,” he said.

LED BY GAMES Cygames’ assault on gamers’ wallets began with the 2018 launch of an animated show “Uma Musume,” which quickly became a hit. When the game launched in 2021, industry observers said it was unusually polished for a free-to-play mobile title. “A lot of the leaders in mobile game companies have no connection whatsoever to the gaming industry,” said Serkan Toto, founder of consulting firm Kantan Games. “It’s different from Cygames; This company is led by gamers. “Cygames and CyberAgent declined an interview request.

The success is all the more remarkable as game companies like DeNA and Nintendo, both of which have stakes in Cygames, have struggled to deliver hits on mobile devices. Japan’s mobile market is dominated by three established titles: “Monster Strike” by Mixi, “Puzzle & Dragons” by GungHo, and “Fate/Grand Order” from Sony’s music division. Gamers say that “Uma Musume” is pulling them and their spending away from those products. Profit at CyberAgent’s games unit more than tripled to 96.4 billion yen ($840 million) in the year ended September, although it fell in the fourth quarter. The company declined to give a forecast for the fiscal year, citing uncertainty about gaming performance.

But the game continues to spill over into the real world, with this month’s show’s voice artists performing at a Tokyo racetrack in costume, with horses running behind them. High-spending users say they remain committed. “I am making gacha with love. It is for love. I’m saying ‘thank you’ to Cygames for giving birth to ‘Uma Musume’, Minakawa said.

(Reporting by Sam Nussey, Editing by Gerry Doyle) The horse racing idol app breathes new life into the Japanese mobile game market

Caroline Bleakley

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